Featured Recipe: Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Fish Sauce Dressing
Brussels sprouts and chewing gum have something in common—they both can cause belly bloat. This temporary ballooned feeling in your stomach may not only prevent you from zipping your jeans, it may also cause discomfort and painful pressure in your midsection. It can even cause an unflattering perception that you've packed on a few pounds practically overnight.
"Bloating is an extremely common medical problem and occurs in people of all ages," says Christopher Calapai, D.O., a family medicine doctor inGarden City, New York, who received his medical degree from New York College of Osteopathic Medicine and has been in practice for more than 20 years. "It's a sensation where your stomach or abdomen feels like it's extremely full and distended."
An estimated 10 to 25 percent of people experience belly bloating. It may be a symptom of a condition, such as a digestive disorder, or it may be the result of too much gas in your belly.
Bloating is not the same thing as water retention. Water retention, a buildup of excess fluid, occurs in the circulatory system. If you are retaining water, you may notice swelling around your ankles, feet and hands. Bloating, on the other hand, primarily happens in your digestive system.
Here, nine reasons your belly may feel like an overinflated balloon, and what you can do to deflate it fast.
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Digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are among the leading causes of belly bloat. In addition to a distended stomach, IBS leads to symptoms like diarrhea, gas, constipation and abdominal pain. One study found that 60 percent of people with IBS report bloating as their most common symptom and the most bothersome.
How to Prevent It: What you eat may make symptoms of IBS worse, and it may also make bloating more likely. As part of IBS treatment and management, you and your doctor will work together to identify any foods, drinks or other potential triggers that make symptoms worse and increase discomfort for you. These may include fiber-rich foods like beans, Brussels sprouts and bran cereal. Deep-fried and fatty foods may also increase symptoms. Avoiding those foods will not only reduce bloating, it may also help reduce diarrhea, stomach cramps and other telltale symptoms of this common digestive issue.
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Don't treat mealtime like a speed race. Chugging drinks and eating very quickly both increase the chances you will swallow air as you're swallowing your food. This introduces more air to your stomach, which can lead to bloating and discomfort.
Likewise, eating a lot at one sitting may cause a bloated stomach. If you've ever had a "burrito baby belly" after eating a big meal at your favorite Mexican restaurant, you know this type of bloating isn't caused by gas in the digestive system. It's just an overload of food in the relatively confined space that is your stomach.
How to Prevent It: Quite simply, slow down. Sip on beverages instead of gulping. You can still reach your daily water quota; just slowly swig throughout the day to keep the body's water stocks filled.
If the bloating is a result of eating too quickly, work on slowing your pace. Distract yourself during meals with a book, conversation or anything to prevent the plate-to-mouth express train. You can also skip the traditional idea of three big meals per day and opt for six smaller meals so you're less likely to overeat.
Researchers estimate that 15 million people in the U.S. are living with a food allergy. In total, 1 in 5 Americans face food allergies or intolerances. When you eat something you're either allergic to or have an intolerance to, your body releases histamines, compounds that help tame allergy symptoms. The higher concentration of histamines causes your digestive system to produce more gastric acid and increase smooth muscle contractions, and these changes can equal some uncomfortable symptoms, including indigestion and bloating.
How to Prevent It: The only real way to know if you have a food allergy or intolerance is to talk with your doctor. They may order a series of tests to check for allergies or signs of sensitivity to specific foods. These issues cannot be self diagnosed, and you may end up eliminating foods that are healthy and entirely safe for you to eat if you try. Keep a food diary if you suspect food is your bloating culprit. A food diary will help you and your doctor eliminate possible problem foods and identify a list of troublesome options quickly.
"It might seem hard to narrow down the culprit, but the more information you can gather about your reactions to different foods and circumstances, the better idea you'll have as to what triggers your symptoms," says Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition.
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You don't have to have a food allergy or intolerance to have food challenges. Common food additives, like artificial sweeteners, and fortifying ingredients, like protein powders, can increase your bloat battles.
Trillions of bacteria in your digestive system break down all the food you consume by eating away at the digestible ingredients. During that process, the bacteria release gas. Artificial sweeteners, including sugar alcohols, take longer to break down in your digestive system. That gives the food-munching bacteria a longer window of time to eat—and a longer period of time to release gas. Research confirms that people who eat artificial sweeteners commonly report bloating and gas. Some even experience stomach cramps and diarrhea.
Likewise, additives and nutrition-boosting ingredients like inulin (which is used to increase fiber) and protein powders (like whey concentrate) can be tummy puffers. That's because, as with artificial sweeteners, your stomach's bacteria may have a harder time breaking these ingredients down, which allows them more time to release gas.
How to Prevent It: Try avoiding artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. If you prefer these options for their low- and zero-calorie nature, limit yourself to just three servings of foods sweetened with sugar alternatives per day. Fewer is better. Many types of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols are used today, in everything from yogurt to multivitamins, so familiarizing yourself with the most common—sorbitol, aspartame, sucralose and more—will make spotting the potential problem food easier.
Be sure to read labels to look for troublesome food additives, too. Inulin may be listed as chicory root extract or chicory root fiber. Soy-protein concentrate, which is made from soybeans and used to boost protein content, contains indigestible elements that give bacteria more gas-producing power. Nut- and rice-based protein powders may be easier to digest and less likely to cause gas issues.
Sparkling waters, sodas and other fizzy sippers may be causing you unnecessary bloat. While your La Croix is a healthier no-sugar alternative to overly sweet soda, it's filled tiny bubbles produced by carbonation. This gas can cause battles with burps and bloating when it gets trapped in your belly. What's more, sodas—even diet ones—that are loaded with artificial ingredients and sweeteners can compound bloating problems.
How to Prevent It: Swap your sparkling water for still. Add slices of fresh fruit for natural flavoring, and sip slowly so you don't swallow air. If you can't give up your fizzy drinks, drink fewer and slow down. As bubbly drinks sit, the bloat-causing gas evaporates, which may ease any discomfort it causes once you swallow it.
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Too little fiber, too few fluids and not enough physical activity can spell disaster for your digestive system. That's because these are the main culprits behind constipation, and constipation can lead to bloating and discomfort.
"If you are feeling constipated, it's normal to feel bloated until you are able to use the bathroom," says celebrity nutritionist Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
How to Prevent It: In the long term, you need to boost your fiber intake, drink more fluids and build in time for regular exercise. But if you need to beat the bloat right now, head for the treadmill.
"It may be beneficial to hit the gym for a quick cardio session to not only move things along in your digestive tract but to sweat out any excessive sodium," Beckerman says.
No time for the gym? Just a little bit of movement can help too, like an after-dinner walk around the block.
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If too-little fiber is problematic, surely more is better, right? Yes and no. Fiber holds the key to many healthy functions, including regular bowel movements and potentially even weight loss. However, too much fiber, especially all at once, can cause belly bloat.
If you've recently upped your intake of fiber-rich foods—fruit, salads, bran, beans and nuts, for example—you may be feeling a little pressure in the midsection. While your body can benefit from this increase in fiber, it needs time to adjust. Fibrous foods linger longer in your digestive tract, which allows bacteria more time to release gas. It's a double whammy for belly bloat.
How to Prevent It: Take it slow. Introduce fiber into your diet over time. Add a fiber-rich food to just one meal per day, and when you feel comfortable with that, add another. It may take time, but your digestive system will adjust.
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Increasingly, researchers are connecting good gut bacteria to better overall health. Bad bacteria, however, may have just as much of an impact.
A condition called small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) may be a culprit in several health issues. SIBO is caused by high levels of abnormal bacteria—not the good kind you want—that may cause symptoms including bloating, diarrhea and inflammation. The key to a healthy gut is a balance of several strains of bacteria, but if the balance is upset, issues and symptoms may occur.
How to Prevent It: You don't have to accept your gut bacteria as they are. You can change them. Increase your intake of foods containing probiotics (the good bacteria that whittle away at the foods in your digestive system) and prebiotics (which feed the good bacteria). Add more bacteria-rich foods to your everyday diet. These include kombucha, kefir and fermented foods like pickles and tempeh.
"There are so many benefits of probiotics to help ease digestion, reduce bloat and promote healthy gut bacteria," Beckerman says. "The most widely studied probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, but you can also find probiotics by eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, Greek yogurt and kimchi."
It's not completely clear how the balance of good and bad bacteria impacts digestion, but an increase in good bacteria doesn't appear likely to produce any harm. Indeed, studies suggest that probiotic supplements can reduce the amount of gas produced in your belly, resulting in less bloat and stomach distension. However, it takes time to change your gut bacteria's health, so the sooner you start, the better.
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Your spearmint-smacking habit can lead to you swallowing excess air. The extra air in your belly can cause bloat and stomach discomfort.
Likewise, sucking drinks up through straws can lead to extra air in your stomach too.
How to Prevent It: Swap chewing gum for hard candies if you need something to freshen your breath. Better yet, keep your toothbrush and toothpaste handy for a quick scrub.
Skip the straws, too, and sip straight from the cup or glass so you avoid swallowing air. A bonus benefit of skipping the straw: you'll also avoid putting more plastic into landfills.
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